Clarkesworld Magazine: 2012 in review

The Clarkesworld Magazine reader survey closed yesterday and so I spent the weekend reading and making notes on the stories that Clarkesworld has published over the last year. I hadn’t made notes from the first issue of 2012, but presented herein are notes from the others. If you don’t want to read each review in detail, then I’ll tell you my top three picks:

  1. ‘The Womb Factory’ by Peter M. Ferenczi
  2. ‘A Bead of Jasper, Four Small Stones’ by Genevieve Valentine
  3. ‘Astrophilia’ by Carrie Vaughn

I plan to nominate all three of these in The Hugo Awards (anyone can nominate as long as they’re signed up for LoneStarCon 3 or Loncon 3 by the end of January) — the first two are short stories and the third is a novelette. If you’re curious as to which categories things are eligible for, Neil Clarke has put together a very useful post about that.

On the artwork front, I voted for:

  1. Target Detected by Max Davenport (#69)
  2. Place to Ponder by Steve Goad (#67)
  3. Rockman by Arthur Wang (#64)

Artwork can be viewed in the announcement of the survey. So, without further ado, onto the notes from the stories!

‘And the Hollow Space Inside’ by Mari Ness

Although I found this conceptually interesting — the character around which the plot revolves is a fascinating thought experiment — I found the structure overly fiddly and difficult to follow. I appreciate that that’s probably the author’s desire to try to capture the mental state of the mother, through whose perspective the story is told, but I found it distracting rather than immersive or clever. In the defence of the author, the ebook does a much worse job of differentiating between different sections than the story does online.

‘A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight’ by Xia Jia

I’m not sure what I thought about this one. It’s about a young girl, raised by ghosts, but I found it a bit fleeting. There’s not enough development of the characters to get across the feelings that I think are required to really appreciate the ending; it’s quite clever in some ways, but ultimately didn’t really grab me in the way I wanted it to.

‘All the Young Kirks, and Their Good Intentions’ by Helena Bell

This one made me giggle, mostly due to the (unstated, but brilliant) central premise — all of the Kirks described within the novel live in Iowa, and are named such things as ‘Jamie’, ‘Tiberius’ and in one case, simply ‘Captain’ ([the author’s blog entry on this concept][Bell] is interesting reading). Other than this rather gorgeous conceit, this one didn’t really grab me very hard — there’s a range of stuff going on in the story, but I found it somewhat unfulfilling.

‘Sunlight Society’ by Margaret Ronald

I really liked this story, initially for the cyberpunk aspect of what was going on, and then for the fact that it occurs in a world of superheroes. (This ties in nicely with last week’s superhero story, which I very much enjoyed.) The dialogue was witty and the backstory driving the events of the story are interesting. I particularly liked the ending, and the character’s final remark to the reader, which I found simultaneously apt and disturbing. This story is very relevant to today’s global situation, and I liked it.

‘The Bells of Subsidence’ by Michael John Grist

This story was very poetic, in a way. The scenes I was imagining for the travel between the stars were psychedelic and colourful, contrasting with the melancholy of the protagonist between these times. At its heart this is a touching tale of a girl, separated from her childhood sweetheart, kept sane just by the sound of his name. The only criticism I have is that I was confused as to what ‘Subsidence’ was (in the context of the story), but I think the story gets away without explaining it.

‘From Their Paws, We Shall Inherit’ by Gary Kloster

This one was kinda weird. Two threads go through the story, and it wasn’t immediately obvious to me, upon finishing the story, how they were connected. I think I’ve worked it out, though, and I feel like the story does what it sets out to do well — it gets you thinking, definitely. I must confess I wish that I hadn’t read about it, afterwards, on the author’s website, since I prefer the ambiguity and working it out for myself, versus things being put into black and white. I liked that the two threads are from very, very different perspectives, and any story that bemoans the current state of NASA’s funding is a story with merit!

‘Fragmentation, or Ten Thousand Goodbyes’ by Tom Crosshill

Somewhat heartrending story about a man who operates a business that allows people to be saved into memory. The amount of virtual reality packed into this short story was almost TARDIS-like, and I really liked the way implications were made about virtual reality without being stated outright; I got the distinct impression of VR as a way to make contact more fleeting, and relationships more transient, but that’s just my reading and others will undoubtedly take something away from what is here. Definitely going on the Hugo longlist.

‘Draftyhouse’ by Erik Amundsen

This story was a somewhat confusing tale of ghosts on the Moon. I never really got a firm handle on what was going on, but I think that might have been a deliberate choice on the part of the author, making the reader feel as weirded out as the protagonist does. The concept of the Bridgeways was cool, as was the description of the four things that man can usefully do on the Moon. I also liked the author’s observation that war cannot be recorded in history if there are no survivors on either side. Some cool ideas, but I didn’t really dig the story as a whole.

‘The Womb Factory’ by Peter M. Ferenczi

So, first things first: This one’s on my Hugo longlist, for sure. I really felt the story impacting on me, and I really enjoyed it. Perhaps it’s the effect of the feminist leanings of a couple of the novels I’ve read recently, whiich drew my attention to the feminist angle of the plot? The title gives away the main premise of the story, which is about girls getting pregnant for a company (the reason for this becomes apparent fairly early on).

My interest was piqued by the protagonist’s assertion that she must be ‘working’ for a company that made knockoffs, since the company that made the real deal would never stoop to using humans (instead favouring big shiny buildings with artificial biomedical equipment and the like). However this flies in the face of what’s happening in the real world at the moment, with companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Sony etc using Foxxconn and Chinese labourers to build products instead of shiny manufacturing robots in the developed world. I thought the story would have had more impact had the author said it was the market leader that was engaging in these practices, and not the knockoff merchant.

‘Prayer’ by Robert Reed

This was a story about a girl fighting a war; I found the switching between viewpoints confusing because my Nook didn’t display the little graphics to denote the change correctly. Otherwise, the story was good but a little insubstantial. There’s hints of something deeper happening beneath the events portrayed, but it’s a frustrating and tantalising glimpse that leaves a lot to the imagination.

‘Synch Me, Kiss Me, Drop’ by Suzanne Church

Ephemeral or dreamlike in feel, perfectly judged next to the subject matter centred on a nightclub trading in legal, music-based highs snorted and then enjoyed. The idea that clubs will focus on the beat and then sell nanobots to people, implanting a song in their head to go with the beat, was intriguing to me. Glimpses into the protagonist’s past, again, proved somewhat fleeting and left me with more questions than answers.

‘All the Things the Moon is Not’ by Alexander Lumans

The third story in this issue of Clarkesworld also has elements that left me with more questions than answers, making me wonder if the editor did this deliberately with this trio of stories. Story of a quartet of people harvesting mould on the moon, having discovered water there after the Earth experiences a drought. This one also deals with drugs and addiction, tying in with the previous one, but I didn’t http://www.mindanews.com/buy-topamax/ enjoy it so much; the Church story is definitely my favourite.

‘Immersion’ by Aliette de Bodard

de Bodard writes about a world in which devices known as immersers are used to help Galactics translate native cultures and languages into a form they can interpret. The story is told through the viewpoints of two women who are nearly polar opposites, and I found it an interesting examination of cultural imperialism as much as it was an interesting SFnal concept.

‘If the Mountain Comes’ by An Owomoyela

A water farmer and his daughter are the richest folks in a village with a dry riverbed, but someone called Enah comes with a plan to make the river flow again. Predictably, this doesn’t sit well with the farmer, and this story is about him and his daughter’s reactions. I love the fact that we’re not told how the village got to this situation; there are hints through the story that it’s not just a poor village, but that the story is actually post-apocalyptic.

‘You Were She Who Abode’ by E. Catherine Tobler

A story about someone whose memory is faulty and augmented by a machine designed to help. This story is deliberately very fragmented, as the tale is presented in the way that the protagonist is remembering events. I found it sad, but also confusing; I feel like another viewpoint could have helped ground the disjointed narrative and made it easier to understand what the memories are actually of. As it is, the confusion of the combat zones the protagonist has seen comes across pretty well, though.

‘Astrophilia’ by Carrie Vaughn

I really loved this story! The households and their ability to support themselves (or otherwise) against a harsh backdrop was interesting, but the two central women and their stargazing made me squee and feel very happy. Perhaps not the most idea-driven SF, but definitely worth a look. Since this story is actually a novelette, it will definitely be one of my Hugo nominations.

‘The Switch’ by Sarah Stanton

Another beautiful story, this time focussing on a government who keeps its capital clean by employing holograms to hide the dirt. Three people renovate houses in secret, slowly recreating the city so that the holograms match reality. Cool concept, good read!

‘Iron Ladies, Iron Tigers’ by Sunny Moraine

Clarkesworld was on a roll this issue, with a brilliant and imaginative story to round out the magazine. A woman in a spaceship finds herself in hot water, and her life basically flashes before her eyes. It’s revealed at the end of the story that she’s actually attempting to engage in time travel, and the reason that she can’t see anything through the visual sensors is that she has travelled forward so far, all the stars have gone out. (An incredibly bleak image, the end of the universe is one of the main reasons I never want to have to think too hard about astrophysics or cosmology.) Her reaction to this made the story, for me.

‘Mantis Wives’ by Kij Johnson

This wasn’t so much a story as a series of connected snapshots, and there isn’t much of a narrative. Despite this, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Short but sweet.

‘Honey Bear’ by Sofia Samatar

I liked this story, which screws with your expectations right at the end and remodels parts of mythology to horrific effect.

‘Fade to White’ by Catherynne M. Valente

Last time I read Valente it was her Hugo-nominated story Silently and Very Fast which I didn’t really enjoy at all, but this one really grabbed me. Set in a universe where post-war America looks somewhat different, a boy wants to be a Husband and Father, and a girl waits for her Announcement. I quite like dystopic fiction so this sat well with me. However, I think it’s my least favourite of the three novelettes that Clarkesworld published this year.

‘The Found Girl’ by David Klecha and Tobias S. Buckell

Humanity achieves a powerful enough understanding of artificial intelligence and virtual reality that it transcends, leaving behind those members of humanity that either wouldn’t go or who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The protagonist lives on a Street which (who?) looks after her and the other children in the tale. Interesting ideas on religion are subtly included in the story, which was a cool read.

‘Robot’ by Helena Bell

This one reminded me quite a bit of Ken Liu’s ‘The Caretaker’, but is told in a more stylised manner, being a series of accusatory questions fired at the titular machine. I liked it for that, but it felt a bit empty as a result.

‘muo-ka’s Child’ by Indrapramit Das

Human colonisation of other worlds won’t always be easy, and this story focuses on a human who lands on a planet and is cared for by the inhabitant. It reminded me of ‘Jagannath’ by Karin Tidbeck, somewhat, in a weird way. Interesting read, but didn’t do as much for me as the other two stories in the issue.

‘A Bead of Jasper, Four Small Stones’ by Genevieve Valentine

This one really hit me hard, emotionally. A man working on Europa and conducting various surveys and repair work on the surroundings discovers someone to take away from his loneliness, and the correspondence between the two of them is shown. As someone in a long-distance relationship I think it was especially poignant but I think it’s an incredible story either way.

‘England Under the White Witch’ by Theodora Goss

When I started reading I assumed that the White Witch was a Narnia reference, and so it’s no spoiler to reveal that it is. An Empress sweeps over Britain, rendering it wintry and cold forever. This is seemingly used to make points for the British Empire and imperialism, and I think it works well as one; the Empress continues the Empire, associating the British posessions overseas with a cold sense of futility and desolation. We see things through the eyes of a woman from her teenage years to the end of her career as a loyal servant of the Empress, and it’s a powerful story.

‘The Battle of Candle Arc’ by Yoon Ha Lee

I liked this novelette, perhaps because it was military SF and perhaps because of the awesome-sounding technologies juxtaposed with the superstition of the society involved. The main character was intriguing and his relationship with his subordinate even more so, and the battle was glorious.

‘(To See the Other) Whole Against the Sky’ by E. Catherine Tobler

The inevitable conclusion, after trying many permutations, is that loners are the best crews for spaceships travelling a long distance. Crews and even pairs kill each other in the end, the story explains, and so alone is the best way. This story is about one of those loners, on one of those ships — I enjoyed it.

‘Aquatica’ by Maggie Clark

A symbiotic relationship exists between the Hosts and smaller fish, who latch onto the Hosts to propagate their race, eventually losing themselves in the effort to procreate. Organ is one of those small fish, and he refuses to latch onto a Host, because he wants to find out what else there is. I liked this story, but the ending was a bit spoiled by the introduction of another creature at the last minute; I would’ve preferred it without.

‘Everything Must Go’ by Brooke Wonders

This story was surreal and bizarre, but fun to read. About a house that’s afraid of the dark, and the family that it seeks to protect who live inside it. The tale of the family unravels through a narrative, between snippets taken from the house’s estate agent listing, which I thought worked really well.

‘Your Final Apocalypse’ by Sandra McDonald

Extremely melancholy yet sort of hopeful, all in one. That juxtaposition, which is reinforced to great effect at the ending, meant I liked the story.

‘The Wisdom of Ants’ by Thoraiya Dyer

This was an intriguing story about a tribe of people living on land and getting metals from the ants that live on the land. They trade with the Island People, giving metal in exchange for gut bacteria that replenish the bacteria killed by the pesticides that blight the land (in an attempt to stop the ants). The setup is intriguing and the twist in the tale is cool, too.

‘Sweet Subtleties’ by Lisa L. Hannett

This one is just totally bizarre, about a girl made of sweets and the like, and the people that enjoy eating her. Weird.

Revolver relents, IRON SKY gets more release dates

Attached to a private photo on the ‘Iron Sky UK’ Facebook page, Revolver Entertainment posted the following information:

We have always said that the theatrical run of IRON SKY may go beyond a single day release and here’s the news you’ve all been waiting for…

Revolver is pleased to confirm that after taking on board each and every one of your comments, thoughts and feedback which we sent on to our cinema partners and with their support we are happy to announce that we are extending the film’s run in the UK. Following on from the exclusive bloggers premiere on 21st May and the unique IRON SKY DAY on 23rd May, the film will continue to play at selected cinemas for as long as demand dictates. Now is the chance for all of you that http://www.besttramadolonlinestore.com have been so vocal to come out, support the film and keep it showing.

In an Official Statement, Ben Freedman, owner of London’s Prince Charles cinema, commented: “We’ve always been in discussions with Revolver about extending the theatrical run of IRON SKY and they have always agreed that if demand was strong enough we would keep it going. We have enormous belief in the potential of the film to become a cult classic in the vein of Rocky Horror and The Room and keep audiences flocking to the Prince Charles for many years to come.

The cinemas which will receive extra showings are still being listed, but I’m pleased to note that the Showcase Cinema De Lux in Leicester is amongst them.

Thoughts on a 2012 DUFF race

Guest post by Ulrika O’Brien

I understand a DUFF race for the Australian NatCon has been announced. I concluded that it was too late to run a DUFF race for this year’s ANZAC NatCons back in mid-April when the topic came up on the fan fund administrators’ list. I said as much then. In the intervening two weeks the prospect of equitably and successfully running a race to send a North American to one or both antipodean national conventions has moved from being merely not viable to somewhere between ‘unforgivably foolhardy’ and ‘hyperbole fails me’. Or, as I said in my comment on the race announcement in File 770, golly I think this is an outstandingly bad idea. What follows is a refinement of my comments there.

Nominations in this race are open until midnight, on May 11. That’s just ten days from now. Merely deciding to stand in a fan fund race takes a certain amount of thought and preparation, and that doesn’t begin to address time spent familiarizing oneself with the rules of the fund enough to identify potential nominators, contacting them, getting the right number to agree to nominate, and then getting them to submit their nominations to an administrator. Then there’s the question of writing an effective and engaging candidate platform in only 100 words. There realistically isn’t enough time in just ten days for potential candidates who were not alerted before the public announcement to do all that. Which means that the race is biased against candidates that were not pre-alerted before nominations opened. This opens DUFF up to legitimate complaints of bias. It is deeply unfair to any potential candidate who was not in the circle of those approached before nominations opened. The whole point of the nomination period is to widely and publicly announce that there will be a race so that any eligible fan can reasonably expect to mount a candidacy. An abbreviated nomination period with pre-identified candidates gives the appearance that the DUFF race is not truly open to all eligible fans. Accusations of favoritism are quick to arise in the context of fan funds, and I feel that running a race under these circumstances stands a good chance of damaging DUFF’s reputation for fairness.

Once nominations close the DUFF administrators will need to communicate with each other to compare nominators, validate them, and transfer any other pertinent information received by either — nominations and candidate’s statements can go to either administrator, after all. The thing is, the two current administrators have intermittent communications problems which could easily recur. It’s very possible that there could be some, even considerable, delays getting the ballots written, edited and distributed after nominations close. Even assuming the ballots get out the very next day, May 12, that’s only 19 days before the probable voting deadline of May 31. That’s barely more than two weeks’ voting. Two months is a more normal voting period. The voting period needs to be long enough that candidates can mount a campaign, and long enough that candidates and administrators can promote voting in the race at conventions, in fanzines, and through various social media. Getting people to vote and donate is surprisingly hard work, and without some time to build buzz, chances are good that the race will see few votes cast. Two of the things a fan fund race is supposed to do is raise money for the fund through balloting donations, and to raise awareness of the fund through a rousing public contest, amiably but ardently contested in as many fannish forums as possible. This will do neither.

Assuming that voting closes, as predicted, on May 31, the administrators will again need to get in touch with each other to exchange vote information, validate ballots, and do a joint vote count. I normally allow a full weekend for that process, in order to account for time differences allow time to vet last minute ballots and reach the contestants . So supposing for a moment that the DUFF administrators are still communicating perfectly, we can still reasonably suppose that a winner won’t be announced until June 3. By then, the New Zealand NatCon is over. The Australian one begins in FOUR DAYS. Of which two will need to be spent traveling. Who can realistically imagine booking any trip from North America to Australia in two days, let alone one that involves soliciting crash space with, and transport to, fans in multiple widely spaced cities (as is normal for a DUFF trip)? Even pretending that the ballots are validated and counted instantaneously, and the winner is announced June 1, the amount of planning time left for the winner is well under two weeks, therefore the tickets will be hideously expensive. In other words, a race run in this way will expend the maximum amount of funds to send a winner, while earning the minimum of raised funds during the race.

All this potential damage to the fund in aid of what? A trip to a convention that even the nominations announcement acknowledges the winner may not plausibly attend? Why announce a race to a convention the winner can’t make it to? A fan fund win is supposed to be an honor. Where’s the honor in all the frantic rushing around the candidates and winner would be forced into, especially when the only reason to hold a race now is to finish it before a convention the winner can’t expect to attend anyway?

I say stop the madness now. If the winner of such a DUFF race can’t attend the convention the race is held for, why not defer the race? There is no rule or moral obligation to hold races every year, or for a Natcon, or for that matter, to hold races only once in a year. There are other, better ways to hold this race: choose another ANZAC convention to send the winner to, or hold the race late this year for next year’s Australian and/or New Zealand Natcon, and hold a 2013 race for LoneStarCon, or (worst case) simply defer a year and hold the next southbound race next year and the next northbound one in 2014. If the object of this DUFF race is just to achieve “a reasonable amount of contact, merriment, and satisfaction” then there is absolutely no compelling reason to hold it now. And there is every reason to avoid all the potential frenzy, inconvenience, expense, and public discord that seem so very likely. So let’s not hold it now. Let’s hold it when there is enough time for a fair and equitable nomination period for potential candidates, a solid, high profile campaign for the candidates and the fund, and a sufficient planning period for the winner.

I strongly urge the DUFF administrators to reconsider this present course of action as deeply unwise and potentially very damaging to the fund. I urge them to reschedule the race to allow for a reasonable period of nominations, voting, and planning. If the administrators cannot or will not reschedule, then I strongly urge current and potential candidates to refrain from standing, or withdraw their candidacies, to defer the race de facto by cancelling this one. If the administrators and the candidates persist in this folly, then I strongly suggest that voters who care about the health of DUFF vote Hold Over Funds, without prejudice against any of the candidates, but for the greater good of the fund.

If not DUFFers, won’t drown

Apologies for the Swallows and Amazons quotation at the top, but I just couldn’t resist!

It was recently announced, in a recent news post from File 770, that DUFF (the fan fund between North America and Australasia) is to have a race down under this year. The convention to which the fund will send a delegate, Continuum VIII (this year’s national Australian convention), is to be held 39 days from the announcement. This means that anyone who wishes to stand for DUFF has ten days to find five nominators, twenty days to campaign, and nine days to arrange an entire trip and make it from North America to Australia in time for the convention. If the candidate is feeling daring, then they might try to make it to unCONventional 2012 in New Zealand, which would give them pretty much no time whatsoever between the end-of-May deadline and the start-of-June convention.

What follows is not my opinion as the administrator of a fellow fan fund: that would be out of place, and so I’m not going to comment in an official capacity. This is my personal opinion, as a fan with an interest in fan funds. And, this is, to speak plainly, quite insane. I know for a fact that David Cake (the Australasian administrator) was not in favour of such a race as recently as mid-April; I agreed with him at the time, because I think the timescale is fundamentally flawed. David has since said:

I think that IF you think the timing on the race is overly rushed for a reasonable race and/or trip, then voting for Hold Over Funds is an appropriate way to express that opinion.

Certainly, that would be my recommendation, given the below considerations.

Let’s consider the prospect of time off. Getting time off with a month’s notice should be fine, if candidates arrange it as soon as the nominations period closes. Getting time off with a week’s notice is more tricky — candidates are, I think, going to have to book time off work before they know they’ve won. There’s also the thorny issue of how long you stay — booking more than two weeks off at a time can be tricky, without warning your employer in advance. Is two weeks long enough to do justice to a trip Down Under?

What about the cost of the flights? There are nine days (at maximum) between the close of voting and the start of the trip. The flight costs are not going to be kind, so close to the point of boarding: can a fund really afford to send someone at such notice? One thing is certain: The eventual delegate is going to have to raise a lot of money during their administration in order to offset the cost of flights. One of the ways to raise http://www.mindanews.com/buy-effexor/ funds is traditionally through voting fees, but I’m unsure that that will be enough of a revenue stream to offset an extremely expensive trip, so the onus will be on whoever wins the race to set new records in terms of fundraising ability.1 There’s also the risk that fans concerned about the potential cost to the fund might vote to Hold Over Funds, which would be a great shame in many ways.

Then there’s the voting itself. If you have a voting period of twenty days, how is the fund going to attract a large number of voters in this race? If the extreme costs of the trip is married to an unusually low-revenue voting period with a low turnout from North American and Australasian fandom, then that’s even worse for the fund financially speaking. Although I’m sure DUFF has the money to weather the storm, it seems unwise to tempt fate by running a race that could be a financial disaster in multiple ways.

If I wanted to run a southward DUFF race before what seems likely to be a northward race to LoneStarCon 3, I’d run it in 20132, and race to the Australian Natcon in 2013, Conflux. This convention will be held in April, which means you could use publicity from the southward race to kickstart the northward one:

  • Southward nominations open — 2012.
  • Southward voting opens — start of January.
  • Southward delegate announced, northward nominations open — February.
  • Northward voting opens — March.
  • Southward trip begins. Delegate publicises northward race — April.
  • Northward delegate announced — May/June.
  • Northward trip begins — Summer.

In conclusion, I don’t see this as a sensible move. I think — whatever the logic behind this extremely small window of opportunity for potential candidates — this is ultimately going to cost DUFF. I think the likely situation on May 11th is that the race cannot go ahead as fewer than two candidates3 have been nominated, and that the whole affair will have just been an opportunity to court criticism and bafflement. And that’s the best case scenario, since the alternative is a delegate who has nowhere near enough time to put together a proper trip and ends up spending a lot of money on what will ultimately be a waste of everyone’s time.


  1. If there was ever a time for Chris for TAFF 2: Chris for DUFF, this could be it — Christopher J. Garcia was very good at fundraising and awareness boosting in his time as a TAFF administrator, and could well pull it off for DUFF, too. 
  2. So would Ulrika O’Brien, who suggested this. 
  3. The Big Three — TAFF, GUFF and DUFF — require two candidates to stand for a race to go ahead. 

Bay Area Museums

Bay Area Museums (January 2012)
Published in Science Fiction/San Francisco #125 (ed. Jean Martin, España Sheriff and Tom Becker)

I recently came to the Bay Area and was given a tour of some fascinating places by España, the editor of this fine fanzine. As a result I was asked whether I would write an article on the museums and other centres of culture that I visited. I jumped at the chance to inflict more of my writing on you, and so this article was born. My trip to San Francisco included my introduction to the California Academy of Sciences, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, an art gallery called Varnish and the Computer History Museum – I am going to tackle them in chronological order, and so this article begins with España and I heading to Golden Gate Park.

Our jaunt to the California Academy of Sciences took place on a Thursday evening, because Thursdays are when NightLife happens, and NightLife is amazing. Imagine the brilliance and fascination contained within the only building in the world to house an aquarium, a planetarium and a rainforest; then imagine that with music, alcohol and a strict 21+ policy and you have the idea perfectly. Each night has a theme around which the events revolve; the night we went it was ‘SF Streets’ and there were exhibitions of street art and a DJ playing some funky mashups (which was a good foreshadowing to my visit to the DNA Lounge later in the week; but that lies rather beyond the purview of this piece).

A photograph of the entrance to the California Academy of Sciences
Entrance to the Academy

One thing I must say before I go any further is that the free iPhone app (which, regrettably, is not yet available for Android or WP7 users) offered by the museum is amazing. It does everything I wanted it to do. It lets you check into different areas of the museum (which, handily, also tells you what there is to see) and also offers more information about stuff that might pique your interest. If you’re going, I really do advise you download and use the app as you go around; it certainly added to my experience! Another thing that added to the experience was the array of cocktail bars – each bar had a unique (and not badly priced) cocktail as well as a range of spirits and mixers. If you’re a completist, like me (or an alcoholic, like España) you can complete the set of the specials!

The entire museum is open, with a couple of caveats; the number of planetarium shows is limited (and there is often more than one show during the night) so if you want to go, make getting a ticket a priority and do it before you do anything else. You’ll be able to specify what time you want to see the relevant show, and that lets you plan the rest of your evening around that point. Alongside the planetarium shows is a timetable of other things going on throughout the night (talks and suchlike) – it might be handy to glance at this before tying yourself down to a specific showtime. It’s also worth noting that the rainforest closes down at 8pm, so bear that in mind if that looks like something you want to do.

A photograph of me and España outside the rainforest
Rainforest at the Academy

The rainforest is spectacular, although some of the butterflies came a little closer to us than I would necessarily have liked (the big ones are a lot less cute than the little ones!). The birds flying around, the fish and lizards dotted in enclosures throughout, and the water life swimming in the faux river below you are all sights to behold and the juxtaposition of the three really helps lend the animals you see a context that you often don’t quite get at zoos, aquariums or aviaries. This is reinforced by the way in which you progress through the rainforest – you start at the bottom and climb up three levels, with different animals on each according to how high you are. The butterflies go from being things fluttering in the distance above you to being things that are nearly landing on you as they swoop past, and the water creatures go from right there to beautiful swimming shapes seen from above.

A photograph of a turtle swimming in the aquarium
Aquarium at the Academy

Of course, when you reach the top of the rainforest, you have to come back down, but this is handled for you in the form of a lift that takes you from the top reaches of the dome you’ve walked through and takes you down into the aquarium, filled with water and wonder. Some of the creatures down there are amazing – the jellyfish are just one example of that, illuminated in an array of different and bright colours. The aforementioned river is visible from the bottom, when you’re on the lower level, via a transparent tunnel and various amazing viewing stations; our favourite animal in there was the turtle and it was amazing to see it swim by, right next to the glass.

A photograph of jellyfish, lit up by green light
Jellyfish at the Academy

There’s a huge variety of stuff to see in the aquarium and it took us until our planetarium show to wander around to our hearts’ content. However, we didn’t want to miss the planetarium so we went to see it. It was an interesting show, that combined the science of how cells are structured with information on the structure of the universe itself: from the very small to the very large. The academy very clearly puts a lot of pride into its productions and they were very well made indeed.

At the mid-point of the show, the hostess took the microphone and talked a little about recent science in the areas being discussed. This was incredibly impressive since she talked about exoplanets and the 700th confirmed discovery of an exoplanet, which had occurred only weeks before the talk – clearly the information in the shows is kept very recent! I’ve never been in a planetarium show that had a segment for more recent science in that way, and I thought it worked very well indeed – I shall have to tell a friend who works at the UK’s National Space Centre, clearly.

For the denouement of the evening, we decided to quickly catch some things we hadn’t yet seen in the time we had before the museum closed. This involved getting another cocktail (naturally) and then climbing the stairs up to the museum’s living roof, which is totally interesting in its own right. However, drinking cocktails in the cool night air with the stars all around was incredibly romantic, and for this reason I highly, highly recommend NightLife if you’re looking for a slightly quirky and unconventional location for a date. There was a telescope pointed at Jupiter through which the planet and all four Galilean moons were visible, and España and I were thrilled to be able to see them. All in all, it was a completely magical night.

The California Academy of Sciences is open 9:30am – 5pm (11am – 5pm on Sundays) and opens again for NightLife between 6pm and 10pm on Thursdays. Their iOS apps are available through their website at www.calacademy.org and the Pocket Penguins app is also offered on Android. Entry is $29.95 for adults and subject to a $5 charge if you go at a peak period (although tickets purchased online are not subject to that charge and can be used at any time). Tickets to NightLife are $12, which is significantly cheaper, doesn’t require taking the day off work, and means you can buy alcohol (no guesses as to which I think is the better deal). You will need ID to prove you are over 21, naturally. The theme for February 2nd is ‘Bourbon & Bull’, whereas February 9th sees ‘Animal Attraction’ – see their website for more details.

Now we move onto the Contemporary Jewish Museum and their exhibition on Ehrich Weiss. Weiss is better known to millions of people as Harry Houdini, and the collection was entitled Houdini: Art and Magic. The pieces on display describe the magic he performed and his life through a number of artefacts from his life. There were several such things, including props he used and diaries he kept, but the twist of the exhibition was the other pieces being displayed; namely, a series of pieces of artwork inspired by the man. This lent the exhibition a real sense of context (and almost interactivity) which really served to illustrate the impact he had – not only on his fellow magicians, but on the rest of the world.

I find magic fascinating as a form of entertainment. I loved the Magic Castle in Los Angeles and have flirted with performing magic myself, on occasion (not always entirely successfully!). As a result, I found the exhibition an illuminating look at a man who basically set the stage for many of the contemporary magicians working today. The sense of context was reinforced by a series of videos around the installation – there were clips from films based on Houdini’s life playing on a large screen, and then later in the exhibition another screen showing interviews with and tricks by magicians inspired by Houdini (amongst which were David Blaine and Penn and Teller, both of whom have been heavily affected by the man).

Another string to Houdini’s bow, alongside his magic and public performances, was his scepticism. He loved to debunk supernaturalism and spiritualism (another area in which Penn and Teller have clearly followed his lead, with programmes such as Bullshit!). One very interesting anecdote told of his clashes with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s wife, who attempted to hold a séance for him.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum is open 11am – 5pm, except for Thursdays, on which it opens 1pm – 8pm. It is closed on Wednesdays, however, and can also shut depending on Jewish holidays. Admission is $12 (free on the first Tuesday of each month) and the website is www.thecjm.org if you want to find out more. Houdini: Art & Magic ran until January 16th, 2012; if you want to see it you can head to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (in Wisconsin) between February 11th and May 13th. Alternatively, if that’s a bit too far away for your tastes, you could visit www.thejewishmuseum.org/exhibitions/houdini and follow the link to download the iOS app for $0.99 (no Android/WP7 app at the time of writing).

A photograph of España looking at a cat's head on a wall
España at Varnish

Varnish is an art gallery in San Francisco that we visited on the same day. España mentioned that our visit occurred in conjunction with the Houdini exhibition in SF/SF #124, and there’s not much to add that she didn’t say much better than I could. Check her article out!

Last, but certainly not least, is the Computer History Museum. This is a museum that charts developments in computing from the very earliest computers (including a working Difference Engine) right through to the Internet age. It’s a fascinating place, full of history and shiny gadgets, but the real fannish link is the curator who was at the centre of our trip – the one and only Christopher J. Garcia!

We arrived at the Caltrain station and caught the bus from there to the museum, taking us along roads winding between Google buildings until we reached our stop. We jumped off the bus and I started to ask where the museum was when I saw it, right next to where we had gotten off. It’s an impressive building from the outside and the walk to the entrance is similarly striking, culminating in entry to a rather grand entrance hall (with a bar, which is the best way to enhance any such space). The first thing one sees is the ticket desk; the second, Christopher J. Garcia sitting cross legged behind the ticket desk typing quickly on his MacBook.

We exclaimed as we saw him, and he exclaimed in return, jumping up and getting us complimentary entry, which was really lovely. The first challenge was putting on my little metal entrance badge – it was one of those with a tag that wraps around a draw string or the hem of a shirt, and I’d never seen one before. With that challenge surmounted, we entered the main exhibition, which is entitled Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing.

One of the things I like about this main exhibition is the narrative it presents of the evolution of computing, presented chronologically. As a result, it starts from the very first computers, also known as abaci. I had never actually used an abacus before being shown how to by Chris; they are very elegant, and I can see how they could have been used to achieve great things. Eventually, the exhibition moves beyond the abacus and to machines that required slightly more complexity to create. One example of early machines is IBM’s entry into computing with the tabulating machines it sold prior to World War 2, eventually leading (through things such as missile guidance systems and an Enigma machine) to the 1950s.

The computers of the 50s are interesting because they look like things right out of science fiction – indeed, España was incited to squee over the Univac, a computer made in 1951 which was, for a time, a name synonymous with computer. As one reaches the 1960s, the IBM System/360 is a beautiful powder blue creation, and looks just like the computers from Thunderbirds (which makes sense given they were first introduced a mere year apart). The 1970s bring the Cray supercomputer, which still looks futuristic and evokes SF imagery over thirty years later.

A photograph of me standing in front of the Cray supercomputer
Me in front of the Cray Supercomputer

As the exhibition leaves the 1970s behind, the narrative becomes a little less chronological and starts to expand into different technologies grouped together. So, from a strict progression of time to collections dedicated to such things as the minicomputer (or, as we call it today, ‘the computer’). This area of the museum featured what must be a contender for ‘most misogynistic computer ever designed’ – the Honeywell Kitchen Computer, advertised with the tagline “if she can only cook as well as Honeywell can compute”. This was followed by robots, which were amazing, and the AARON Paint System, a computer that produces artwork designed by Harold Cohen. The issue of whether the artist is the machine or the designer of the machine is an interesting one, and is explored in a video playing nearby.

The segment featuring the Apple I (signed by Steve ‘Woz’ Wozniak) came after that. This was a fascinating look at the rise of the home computer, and was positioned close to the exhibits on computer games and videogames – the Macintosh was released the year before the Nintendo Entertainment System – and so I fawned over the ancient Apple products before playing Chris at a videogame (he thrashed me soundly and completely). I was also happy that there was a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on display with original packaging (of course, if you just want to play it, you can do so on the BBC website).

Chris had to leave at that point so he rushed us through to the Difference Engine, which is presented separately from other exhibits (for obvious reasons). It is very shiny and exactly what I expected; you really do feel that you’re in the presence of something special. It’s next to a separate exhibition about computing in chess, which was similarly very interesting. We rounded out our trip by sneaking back into Revolution and looking at the last parts, focusing on networking and the Internet: the Monopoly board with websites instead of streets (the .com Edition, as the Internet handily informs me) was particularly hilarious. Google didn’t get a mention, with Yahoo! getting the honour of Mayfair – oh, how times change!

There was only one more thing to do after we had seen everything we wanted to see – go to the gift shop. It was a rather good gift shop, but I deliberately restrained myself to only buying a postcard. Well, okay, a postcard and a tin of Super Mario Bros. plasters. The Computer History Museum opens from 10am to 5pm and is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays; entry is $15. They also have the best website of any museum in the world (if you disagree, feel free to write a letter of comment), with lots of information and also many fascinating online exhibits, at www.computerhistory.org – I highly recommend a visit.